The Braille alphabet system is a method that is widely used by blind people to read and write. Braille was devised in 1821 by Louis Braille, a Frenchman. Each Braille character or cell is made up of six dot positions, arranged in a rectangle containing two columns of three dots each. A dot may be raised at any of the six positions to form sixty-four (26) permutations, including the arrangement in which no dots are raised. For reference purposes, a particular permutation may be described by naming the positions where dots are raised, the positions being universally numbered 1 to 3, from top to bottom, on the left, and 4 to 6, from top to bottom, on the right. For example, dots 1-3-4 would describe a cell with three dots raised, at the top and bottom in the left column and on top of the right column, i.e., the letter m. The lines of horizontal Braille text are separated by a space, much like visible printed text, so that the dots of one line can be differentiated from the Braille text above and below. Punctuation is represented by its own unique set of characters.
The Braille system was based on a method of communication originally developed by Charles Barbier in response to Napoleon's demand for a code that soldiers could use to communicate silently and without light at night called night writing. Barbier's system was too complex for soldiers to learn, and was rejected by the military. In 1821 he visited the National Institute for the Blind in Paris, France, where he met Louis Braille. Braille identified the major failing of the code, which was that the human finger could not encompass the whole symbol without moving, and so could not move rapidly from one symbol to another. His modification was to use a 6 dot cell — the Braille system — which revolutionized written communication for the blind.
Braille can be seen as the world's first binary encoding scheme for representing the characters of a writing system. The system as originally invented by Braille consists of two parts:
1. A character encoding for mapping characters of the French language to tuples of six bits or dots.
2. A way of representing six-bit characters as raised dots in a Braille cell.
Today different Braille codes (or code pages) are used to map character sets of different languages to the six bit cells. Different Braille codes are also used for different uses like mathematics and music. However, because the six-dot Braille cell only offers 64 possible combinations, of which some are omitted because they feel the same (having the same dots pattern in a different position), many Braille characters have different meanings based on their context. Therefore, character mapping is not one-to-one.
In addition to simple encoding, modern Braille transcription uses contractions to increase reading speed.